By Mark Antonation
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By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
Chef Gaku Homma -- a native of Japan who came to this country thirty years ago to teach aikido (which he does in the attached Nippon Kan dojo when he's not in the kitchen) -- steps into the dining room, stands with his hands on his hips, scans the tables, the dishes on the tables, the disposition of bowls and platters and cups of tea. He's no doubt judging how much longer his dining room will be open by the way courses are progressing, how pleased people are by the number of clean bowls versus the number of those half-emptied or hardly touched.
He spots the grumpy hostess rushing by and stops her, leans over, says something sharply that I can't understand, and she moves on -- slower now, her course altered. She heads out into the garden through the open door at the back of the dining room.
I try to watch her from my window, but my view is obscured by an artfully positioned bush. All I can see is a bit of gravel path, a curve of waterfall, a few blossoming flowers, a wedge of red umbrella suspended over a table. It's beautiful. And when I look back, Homma has retreated into the kitchen. Domo is going to be open for a while yet. The people show no signs of clearing out.
1365 Osage St.
Denver, CO 80204
Region: Central Denver
Nikyu nabe: $17.75
Sakana nabe: $18.75
Chicken teriyaki: $15.75
Maguro teriyaki: $19.50
Shrimp udon: $18.75
Maguro and hamachi: donburi $21.75
Shiozake donburi: $17.75
Wanko sushi (3 piece): $22.25
My favorite dish at Domo isn't even on the menu. It's the cooked salmon, rolled in tiny orange tobiko roe, served with a spicy smear of something that is almost like a rémoulade alongside three broccoli florets. It's one of the seven sides that are included with every entree, traditional accompaniments brought on a platter along with the miso soup, sometimes well in advance of the main course, sometimes beating it just by the long reach of a server's arm.
The soup is hot, the seven sides cold. This is peasant food -- rustic farmhouse Asian cuisine from a culture that prizes the centuries of codification that have gone into the construction of single, perfect bites: a piece of fish, a slip of chile, one hundred grains of rice. There's the salmon, sliced chicken in a spicy peanut sauce, cold buckwheat noodles, tofu wrapped in eggplant, green Chinese vegetables, mushrooms that taste like rich soil tossed with bits of dark chicken meat, more noodles. The black-and-red bowls are small, each holding enough for three or four bites but assembled with such care, presented so beautifully, that you'd be lucky to pay for something as good at other restaurants. They are a taste of Japan unique to Domo, with flavors that seem vaguely familiar to those who know Asian food, but bent in strange directions -- like hearing your own name misspoken. Alone, they're almost enough to constitute an entire meal. But they are just the start.
I eat the salmon first, the chicken, chew at the rubbery mushrooms. There's powerful pickled ginger on the tray for cleansing the palate between bites, and I eat a pinch of it after the mushrooms because their woody essence is overwhelming. Then I eat the noodles. The tofu I leave alone because I don't like the texture of the eggplant. I try to eat the vegetables, but they all taste like boiled cabbage.
The best dishes in Japanese cuisine are like haiku made of food: a few discrete elements, each individual and important, but all working together to express a single idea. The shiozake donburi speaks of salt: grilled, salted salmon topped with salty ikura (salmon eggs) that burst in your mouth with a flavor like seawater jelly, and peppery grated daikon radish as a counterpoint. The nabemono are expressions of season, with strong, wintry pork nikyu nabe in soy broth with vegetables, tofu and konnyaku (a jelly made from Japanese potato flour and limewater) served in an iron pot, or light sakana nabe with tilapia or salmon in miso. The chicken teriyaki is a display of dedication -- Japanese barbecue done slow, with marinated chicken thighs seared and then left hung over a working grill for hours so that they take on the smell and taste of smoke. The tojimono probably makes a statement, too, but I've never been able to hear it, because the dish is meat and seafood, mushrooms, seaweed and carrots sautéed in soy sauce or miso, then tossed with an egg custard and steamed -- essentially an eel-and-miso omelette, a pork-and-mushroom pudding. Instead, I eat shrimp tempura udon with a boiled egg bobbing in the broth.
I return on a Saturday night because I've been having a bad day, because I want to escape, because I want peace. Although it has been a long time since I set foot in a proper church, going to Domo is like a gastronaut's high mass. It is confession and redemption (forgive me, Father, for I have been eating McNuggets), and after a meal here, I always feel like a Catholic who's just had a nice sit-down with the Pope.
I walk the stones, I pause briefly in the courtyard. During formal meals in Japan (especially the kaiseki tea services), there's often a recess in the eating when guests are expected to step outside to clear their heads and contemplate nature and the seasons. I do this before stepping inside Domo, take a moment to get all the voices in my head to shut the fuck up. I always eat alone. I never feel lonely.